Rick Warren at Inaugural

Nothing is either good or bad about Warren giving the Invocation at Obama’s inaugural. The problem is that it places him in a situation where he has to do what Obama does as a politician, balance competing interests. I think Warren would be better placed as a leader of a relief organization rather than a pastor. His vision is an alliance of interested people in slaying the five giants of our world that lead to human suffering: poverty, ignorance, disease, spiritual darkness and leadership without service. I think he is finding, and going to find even more, that the church is very interested in maintaining its identity and will find itself consistently uneasy in such alliances. Eventually Warren is going to be swallowed up by his alliances and churches will find no energy for it.

It’s a shame to see a Pastor of such a phenomenal church become a political football. Eventually the evangelical church will look to him less and less as a gospel preacher. His job of smoothing over differences between competing interests will make him “UN like.” The church will turn more toward those highlight the differences between gospel and “ungospel”, between the saved and the lost, between worship and “unworship.” I wish I had the older version of Rick Warren back. But no matter what, he is in my prayers and well wishes.

Churches preaching the Gospel and changing the world one heart at a time will endure.

Church Discipline, Florida style

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A divorced Jacksonville woman said her former church has threatened to “go public with her sins” and tell the congregation about her sexual relationship with her new boyfriend. Rebecca Hancock said harassment from Grace Community Church in Mandarin over her sex life caused her to leave, but she said that didn’t put an end to the problem. She said she received a letter from the church’s elders telling her the church plans to make her personal life very public.

I’ve been thinking. Many years ago I was a part of a church as a seminary student where the Pastor, at a wise age of 28, decided to take church discipline very seriously. The Apostle Paul was clear that openly practiced disobedience to the clear moral demands of the the Bible was unacceptable and that people who don’t get right with God should go through the Matthew 18 process. So far so good. But there was a problem. The same people pursuing this “call of God” were much better at cleaning out the flock of God than building it. It occurred to me then, and does so today, that there was an irony of sorts in being so eager to defend the holiness of God but not so eager to deal with the messiness of sinners finding their way to Jesus.  (Chuck Swindoll make the point that the church is like an ark – you couldn’t stand the stink inside if things weren’t worse on the outside.) Eventually the church lost its zeal for purifying itself and church discipline dropped off the leadership team’s agenda. I think one of the burn points was their experience of trying to enact discipline when one marriage partner was divorcing the other without biblical grounds. Getting involved in the lives of divorcing people is like driving into a tornado. Stuff flying all over the place. Families taking sides, church members taking sides, threats of lawsuits, children humiliated, etc. Of course, the reality is that the Apostle Paul does not recommend church discipline for Christians divorcing. He allows separation, though not remarriage for those whose divorce did not rest on biblical grounds.

For church discipline to work other things have to be in place:

1. There has to be a definite membership. If people who just come to the church regularly are considered in some sense members, then when it comes time to exercise some kind of intervention, you’ll quickly find out that they are not members. People do not become members for a reason. Remember that. So a church needs to make a clear distinction in its own eyes and in the eyes of the church between those who have and those who have not entered into a commitment of voluntary association.

2. The leadership should have authority over the membership rolls. If they do not, then the member being disciplined only has to work the phone lines and emails and create a groundswell of confusion. Is there danger that the leadership will be overly controlling in such a circumstance? Yes, there is. But there is as much, even more danger, that anarchy will destroy, too. A wise church recognizes that there will be moments like this, elects wise men to the leadership who in all respects demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit, and then charges them to manage the family in discrete ways that keep the church from being unduly destabilized by factionalism. If the church does not give the leadership this power, then all types of dirty laundry are going to be aired in order for people to build their case against each other. It feels dark, is dark and puts the church to an open shame. If this is what your constitution calls for, however, you have to do it, even if it is messy. My recommendation is that you change your constitution so you don’t have to go there.

3. If a person who is being disciplined no longer wants to be a part of the church, I believe the matter is closed. The church’s responsibility in the matter is completed. The approach of “you aren’t going to quit, we are going to fire you” is childish and ends up without any positive result. However, if a person desires the privilege of association and the church denies him that privilege until open defiance of God’s moral law is abated, then the church has fuflilled the biblical pattern. In the Florida case, the woman no longer wants to be accountable to that body of believers and does not want to attend there. So be it. As a Pastor you give to her a final word of exhortation and encouragement to turn to Christ and then let her go.

4. I think churches fail to let those who attend know that such things as public defiance of God’s moral law are taken seriously. We all understand human weakness and the pride that comes with sin. But there is a line that can be crossed where the offending party begins to so distort the Christian message and faith that the church has to protect itself lest its message of salvation get so clouded over that no one can see the bright light of Christ. Some church are so “hail fellow well met” that when the church has to turn to discipline every one is stunned. They never imagined such a thing could happen, partly because the church was so welcoming it never occurred to anyone that there was a core of truths and commitsments that could not be compromised. Any good church will fill up with all kinds of people in all phases of life and in all phases of yes and no to God. There should be drug users, the sexually immoral, those living together, etc. (in other words, us) coming because the word of salvation is being preached in a compelling way that even those far from God are willing to hear. But there should always be a clear line of demarcation between those who have entered into covenant with Christ and His church and those who have not. If that is no big deal and unclear, then everyone will be surprised when the church suddenly becomes “strict.”

5. The recent events in the Episcopal church show the relevance of church discipline. When, in the name of God’s love, the church no longer commits itself to a clear moral vision for which its members make sacrifice, church, as church, is an empty concept. Churches need to take goodness seriously. When they do not, really bad things happen. Committing ourselves to goodness while at the same time being of real help to people who fall short of that aspiration (all of us) is the balance. And churches that don’t balance will not be able to exercise church discipline effectively.

I have been in the messiness of church discipline. It’s a whirlwind that rips sails, breaks masts, and keeps the pumps running day and night lest the boat sink. It’s at such times as these that we are reminded that the church is a real thing, not just an idea or wish. It is not a reading group at the library or a fund raiser at the country club. It is on a mission, and its very existence means a collision course with this present world order. Put on your saftety helmets and buckle those seat belts. If you don’t, you’ll get a rude awakening when your head slams against the windshield.

Another homerun by iMonk – a note to Ted the Loser

This post is inspired by a FoxNews piece updating the situation of disgraced megachurch pastor Ted Haggard. Haggard was a major leader in evangelicalism until he was brought down by evidence of sexual sin and drug use.

Dear Ted,

May I call you Ted? Not “Pastor Ted,” “Reverend Haggard” or any other ministerial name.

You may not feel like it, but you’re at a good place. Finally. It’s taken a while, but you’ve made it to the place where the Gospel of Jesus has its power. On the verge of the fourth Sunday of the season of waiting, you’ve made it to the place where all that can happen now is for a savior to be born to a virgin. Your savior, no less. Yours and all the other losers.

Yes Ted, honesty, your best gift now has arrived.

“Disgraced evangelical leader Ted Haggard says in a new documentary that he still struggles with his sexuality yet is committed to his marriage for the sake of his children.”

Struggles. YES!

“He now sells insurance and, in the documentary, says he isn’t successful. ” At this stage in my life, I am a loser,” he says.”

Loser. YES!

Ted, I hope I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but all those years that you lived in the center of the evangelical circus, all those years you covered up your struggles and desires, all those years you were taught to lie, deny, obfuscate and yammer on and on with various high-octane versions of the evangelical revival story (complete with band and movie clips), you were far, far away from the truth.

You were living a lie and you were teaching a lie.

And some of the things you’ve said since your fall? How you were fixed with a few sessions of counseling? Not good, Ted. Not good. A very bad place. Avoid it.

Now, Ted, now…now you are starting to see the light. You can say “I was abused as a second grader.” “I struggle…..I’m a loser.” This is major progress.

My recommendation is to find a good group somewhere that will understand how you feel and what you’ve experienced. You see, the evangelical version of that you can say you strugglED and you WERE a loser, but now everything is all right because you prayed a prayer, got saved and got called to preach. You know that’s not true- you’re not all right. You’re a walking wreck and lying about it has just made things worse.

What you hid, denied and buried rose up out of the dark place where you stuffed it and took over your life. I know that feeling very well. You’re suddenly a person without integrity. The truth isn’t in you. You’ve lived a lie and now the truth is going to have its day.

So here you are selling insurance. I suggest you stay right there, or someplace similar, for a very long time.

I suggest you find some other “losers” and compare notes.

I’d like to affirm your instinct that just any place in evangelicalism probably won’t do right now. Some evangelicals will be good companions, but most won’t. You understand this, but let’s explain this to those still fascinated by the coffee bar in the common area.

Ted, gentle readers, is now living proof that “it” doesn’t work the way “it” is supposed to work. Ted is now a living demonstration that, darn it, we aren’t fixable. A good church with a kickin’ band? Great shoes and suits? Sermons researched by assistants and delivered with the proper film clips and jokes? Nope. Tear filled illustrations? Prayer groups? Sermon series on mp3? Book? Seventeen verses of the latest “I love you Jesus” song? A big smile?

All worthless for real sinners like Ted and yours truly.

No Ted, it’s resurrection or nothing. It’s Jesus does the whole deal or there is no deal.

I see that hand. What? Can’t we have transformation and victory now?

Transformation….yes. Transformed from lying to telling the truth. Transformed from this religious act to honest confession of sin. Transformed from this celebrity saint to this loser on his knees at the table of the Lord. “Even the dogs get the crumbs.” Yes, transformed so that the Gospel’s diagnosis and truth make sense in the deep, dark places of your life.

But fixed? Cured? “Victorious?” “Your Best Life Now?” No. The deepest disease of the soul isn’t sexual sin or meth or lying. The deepest sin of the soul is prideful autonomy, the very thing evangelicals demand in their celebrities. There’s only one cure: dying and rising. Until then, believe the Gospel with an open heart, and walk in the power of the Spirit- who keeps you on your knees depending on Jesus- until Jesus finishes the job.

By all means, Ted, find a community. Find a church that gives you the Gospel over and over and over again. A church that has no time for the evangelical circus.

But know that the community of “strugglers” and “losers” centered around the Gospel and the Table aren’t going to be there behind most church signs. Still, don’t give up. Jesus wasn’t lying about his church. It’s on earth, but you have to be willing to touch the leper, embrace the adulteress, include the sexual struggler, love the loser. You have to see the ugly, the broken, the lonely, last, least and lost to see that community.

And you have to see Jesus in the simple Gospel proclaimed, in the bread and the wine. In the things that don’t make megachurches anymore. In fact, you may be surprised where you find that community, Ted. Jesus is famously unconcerned with the kind of people he calls his friends. I hope you’re learning that.

You’ve been given a great gift in your honest struggle and confession of being a loser. You’re on the way. You’re on the road. Don’t whine about it. Don’t make the mistake of seeing the broad evangelical Disneyland as your destination. You’re at that point where George Bailey stood on the bridge. You can despair….and jump. Or you can know that God has sent his hope, love and good news to you in a barn, where shepherds worship in tearful silence; where a man receives a gift he never created; where a virgin says yes even to the unthinkable that grace can do the impossible.

Go there, Ted. Find that place. Go as a struggler, a loser, one with nothing. Go and know that this, and all it means and will ever mean, is for you. For you….a savior. A savior of strugglers, losers and worse.

your friend and fellow loser,

Michael